September 17, 2023

G20: Modi’s Self-Promotion

THE adoption of a joint declaration by the G20 summit in New Delhi with all member countries subscribing to it was an achievement, given the sharp divisions that exist on the issue of the Ukraine war.  The eight paragraphs dealing with the Ukraine war were negotiated successfully due to the joint efforts of India, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa – the four countries which have held or will be holding the presidency between 2022 and 2025.   

In the section on the Ukraine war, there is no reference to Russia as aggressor – something which the United States and the western countries acceded to.  The stepping back from their firm position on condemning Russian aggression stemmed from the fact that the failure to adopt a declaration would have shown the G20 in a poor light at a  time  when BRICS is emerging as a powerful forum.  The other reason was that the United States was keen to see that Narendra Modi and India got the laurels for the successful holding of the G20 summit, as Biden sees India as a crucial ally and a counterweight to China. 

The G20 began as a forum for discussing global economic issues.  It was formed in 1999 following the East Asian economic crisis.  The G7 was expanded to G20 when the richest countries roped in the emerging economies to share the burden of the crisis that inevitably follows the neo-liberal economic reforms trajectory.  The annual consultations at the ministerial level were converted into the heads of government summits following the global financial meltdown in 2008.  The G20 presidency has been rotating every year amongst the members. 

Experience has shown that the annual G20 summits discuss a range of issues and adopt a declaration, but this is not a body which takes decisions that are to be implemented by all the member countries.  The G20 summits have become a routine affair in which economic matters are debated and some pledges made, which are not binding or monitored for implementation. 

Since the Ukraine war, the geopolitical tensions have intensified and fed into the new Cold War, which has emerged between the United States and its allies and China-Russia.  The G7 countries’ insistence to bring Ukraine on the agenda in the Bali summit last year led to fissures being created, jeopardising even the existing practice of coming out with a joint declaration. 

Narendra Modi and the Indian team sought to project the G20 summit as the voice of the global south. Modi is aware that despite the close strategic alliance being forged with the United States, the changing world situation and growing multi-polarity requires India to position itself as the champion of the global south. 

However, the New Delhi declaration does not have anything concrete or substantive on the burning issues confronting the developing and poorer countries.  On climate change and the vital issue of climate finance, which is crucial for developing countries to face climate disasters, there are only generalised statements.  The situation remains that the commitment made by the industrialised countries at the Paris conference to mobilise 100 billion dollars climate finance a year is far from met.  The declaration does not reflect the demands of the developing and poor countries on climate finance. 

For the deepening debt distress of the developing countries, there are no real steps proposed to alleviate the burden.  The declaration fails to point out that the continued hikes in interest rates by the United States have escalated the debt of poor countries by around 800 billion dollars over the last year. There is a lack of commitment to debt cancellation for the 60 countries that are most severely burdened by their debt obligations. 

The declaration calls for “accelerating progress” on achieving the 17 sustainable development goals of the United Nations that were launched in 2015 and need to be completed by 2030.  So far, only 12 per cent progress has been made in complying with the 17 goals. India’s record is also poor in this regard.  But the declaration is content with exhorting countries to accelerate efforts to achieve them.

The only positive step for the global south in the G20 was the admission of the African Union as a permanent member.

It is what happened outside the summit and on the sidelines which are of significance.  The US president Biden had a bilateral meeting with Modi the day before the summit. Biden utilised the opportunity to firm up defence contracts which had been agreed upon during Modi’s visit to US like the purchase of jet engines, armed drones and so on.  The deepening military collaboration was also underlined by the conclusion of a second Master Ship Repair Agreement signed between the US Navy and the Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd., signifying India’s emergence as a hub for maintenance and repair of forward-deployed US navy assets and other aircraft and vessels. India also gave concessions to the US by withdrawing major customs duties on US poultry and agricultural products.  India also reduced customs duties on apples, almonds, lentils and other agri-commodities from the US. 

These concessions to the US at the expense of Indian farmers were how Modi sought to appease the Americans to get them to cooperate on the diluted provisions on the Ukraine war. 

The other announcement made on the sidelines of the summit was an agreement for creating an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). This again was done at the initiative of the United States.  The corridor involves development of rail and sea routes which will connect India through the Middle East to Europe.  There are no details as to the financing of the various projects and the economic viability of the whole concept.  It is obvious that the United States would like the IMEC to emerge as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The G20 process has proved to be ineffectual as a multilateral forum primarily because it has been dominated by the G7 countries and its allies.  However, for the India presidency, the G20 summit had other uses.  Narendra Modi and the BJP government sought to promote the G20 summit as a great achievement for India due to Modi’s leadership.  The sole purpose became to boost Modi’s image domestically among the Indian people. The summit was organised as an extravaganza.  It is reported that over Rs 4,100 crore has been spent on the G20 meetings in the past year, while the budgetary allocation for the G20 was Rs 990 crore. 

All the publicity, including the giant hoardings put up in Delhi during the summit, projected Modi as the central figure on an international stage – something the foreign media who covered the event were quick to note.  The British paper, The Observer, in its editorial comment termed it as Modi’s “blatant use of the summit to boost his personal image and his chances in next year’s Indian elections”.

If nothing else, the G20 summit will be known as another event to project Modi as Vishwa Guru.


(September 13, 2023)